Much more than in any other place we’ve been, I felt our strangeness here.
We spent nearly two weeks in Morocco, and neither Gideon nor Danny nor I, all of us curious and sociable people, developed the slightest connection to anyone. Not to the taxi drivers or the hotel proprietors, not to the food servers, not to the merchants in the souks, not to the people we encountered in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa (the medina’s huge public square),
not to the kids playing in the alleyways, whom we passed on the way home to our homey little riad near the Kasbah mosque.
Is it the language barrier? We speak pidgin French, if that, and French is no longer mandatory in Moroccan schools. For younger people, which is most Moroccan people, Arabic and Berber predominate. We repeatedly attempted to break through the conversational barricades. Eventually I concluded that the impediments were not linguistic, nor were they economic. After all, we’ve encountered plenty of poverty elsewhere, never to the detriment of social intercourse.
Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but to me, it felt as though two linked dynamics were getting in the way. There’s the apparently inherent tension between modernity and Islamic orthodoxy. And then, there’s education.
Upon our arrival in Casablanca, we selected a vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant (a bit like identifying a needle in a haystack) about a 35 or 40-minute walk from our Air BnB near the Hassan II mosque. It was early evening, and from the moment we walked onto the street, Danny pronounced, correctly, the street culture more vibrant there — less tourist-oriented — than what we’d encountered in Marrakesh. Women hauling groceries, kids kidding around. Passing one café, we noticed perhaps 40 folding chairs lined up in semicircular rows, all facing a television mounted high on the back wall. On the tube, a soccer match. In every single one of those seats sat a man. When we walked by another café, same thing. Then another. And another. Gideon took out his phone and Googled something like “Morocco Casablanca football”, and informed us that Casablanca’s club team was playing in the semifinals of the African Champion’s League.
Okay, so more men like to watch soccer than women. But no women? Really, none.
Where are the women? I ask Danny. No reply. We’re walking, we’re all busy looking, so I dropped it. But later, after a few more cafes, I raise the subject again.
Don’t they want to be with women?
Doesn’t it get a little oppressive hanging out only with men?
Don’t they like women?
Walking the streets of Casablanca, and earlier, of Marrakesh, I found that heavily draped women passed me by without looking up, much less smiling.
I wondered: When these women, heads wrapped in hijabs, or completely covered in black niqabs, pass me, do they excuse or condemn me for my attire?
Do some think, infidel, and silently reprehend me for dressing “immodestly”?
Trying to puzzle the question out. Perhaps it’s like passing by a nun. Nuns always smile at me when I pass by them (I’m a big eye-contact pedestrian), and when they do, I always quietly muse that this woman must be very kind.
When I finally voice these thoughts aloud, I realize they’re not the same. Nuns have elected to devote their life to Jesus, but a woman can choose not to do that and still be a earnest believer and a moral person. In the more orthodox forms of Islam, at least, refusing to abide by the laws of dress is an affront to Allah; in that case, a woman passing me regarding my western garb might well disapprove. Certainly that’s not always so, but sometimes I did get the impression that I was being judged, and that those judgements were not positive.
One day, Danny and I went to work out that a nearby sports club. The women’s locker room was located up on the second floor. After having changed there, I was shepherded into a workout room different from the spacious, well-ventilated gym on the ground floor, where I’d expected to go. That one, I realized, was visible from the street, and filled exclusively with men. My workout space, about one-third the size, had a wall of windows, a wall of mirrors, and perhaps fifteen rickety machines. As I cranked my way through half an hour on an ancient recumbent bike, several women came, pumped or treaded, then departed. All wore multiple layers of loose clothing even though the temperature in the poorly-ventilated, low-ceilinged room must have exceeded eighty degrees.
I returned to the women’s locker room, which was absolutely sweltering. Even after having showered in cool water, the moment I turned the nozzle off, I began to sweat again. As I dressed, I watched one woman donning her outfit as she chatted with a friend. Undershirt. Then bra. Full-length leggings. Long-sleeved shirt. Sweat was pouring down her back, I noticed. Over all this, she donned a full-length robe, and wrapped her hair into a scarf.
In any case, it does seem as though men own Morocco’s public realm.
Don’t misunderstand: we encountered women everywhere we went. Women in burqas, women in niqabs, women in hijabs (that’s most of them), women wearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts (mainly tourists). The women in burqas and full-length gowns tended to be older. Almost always, they were sitting with one another, off by themselves, occasionally with a son or a child.
A benchfull of such women became enraged when I snapped a photo of them, disrespectfully deciding that my picture was more important than their fantasized privacy. (I was pretty far away, so I hadn’t anticipated their ire.)
In our perambulations we saw husbands walking with wives, not so frequently. Fathers with their families, almost never. In the countryside’s public places we saw practically no women at all.
The official literacy rate for Moroccan women is listed as forty percent. From what we encountered, I’d bet it’s lower than that. Outside the cities, we didn’t really see many children in school — and we saw a lot of children. Even when we did see children in school uniforms, it seemed that the school day finished quite early. Even the (all male) taxi drivers in Marrakesh gave indications of illiteracy: we’d show them the address of where we wanted to go on our phone, and they’d gaze up at us silently from the driver’s seat, perplexed.
Aside from negotiating a price or a ride, I realized, there was little to discuss. The educational gulf was that wide.